Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tic Tac Toe

The best kind of anger, I have always believed, is the kind of anger you can direct at someone - particularly when you can do it in letter form. Angry letters are an art unto themselves. My college roommate and I devoted an unhealthy portion of our otherwise squeaky clean youths channeling rage and frustration into just the right combination of adjectives and sentence construction to deliver that verbal slap in the face that people and institutions sometimes need. Especially in America. Especially nowadays. Any country that thinks six editions of CSI and fourteen Law and Order franchises are necessary is more than a few quarters short of a dollar.

Frankly, I have strong suspicions that our sad devotion to angry letter-writing might have a little something to do with why neither my roommate nor I graduated on time from Rutgers on time. But that's another story. A much longer, much more boring story, with not nearly enough sex involved.

And it has nothing to do with the point of this post, which is this: what do you do when you're pissed off, but there's nobody to write a letter to?

With apologies for the dangling participle, the question relates to a series of train rides I recently took into New York City via the vaunted rail service of New Jersey Transit. I'm a big fan of New Jersey Transit. The fact that their trains are often filled with degenerate lowlifes and self-absorbed, narcissistic, Blackberry-enslaved commuters is hardly their fault. Nor are they responsible for the piles of drunk human wreckage draped across the benches like yesterday's clothes on the 1:41 AM Northeast Corridor trains on Friday and Saturday nights - the last ride home for the Bridge-And-Tunnel crowd. I know this.

For let's say 15 years now, I've been at least a somewhat regular rider of the rails, with a streak of amazingly good luck where my co-passengers were concerned. Once on a night in July, a very attractive Asian woman in a black-and-white checkered dress offered me what amounted to six months of guilt-free sex. "I'm in town on a development project till the end of January," she said, "why don't you give me a call some time?" And I, being the genius that I am and always have been, threw away her fucking number instead of framing it.

More recently, I struck up a conversation with a trio of gregarious lesbians on their way from Metropark to a Melissa Ferrick concert. That was 40 minutes of my life well spent, right up until the point I found out they were lesbians. Still, at least it was entertaining.

Sure, there were the odd spots of trouble, like the time in October 1998 when, on my way to a Nashville Predators-New York Rangers hockey game, I was forced to sit next to a gentleman who smelled overwhelmingly of coriander and smoked halibut. In a restaurant setting, maybe I would have found such scents delightful and promising. In the close confines of a cushionless two-person vinyl seat, however, I found my companion's odors suffocating and, as it turned out, portentous of other awful things. (Nashville lost the game 5-1, and then first-string goalie Mike Dunham was taken out early in the 2nd period with a strained groin. Also, I paid $60 to a scalper who had bought the ticket from my eventual neighbors for $10. And someone threw a beer at me for wearing a Predators jersey. Or possibly it was that jilted Asian girl exacting some small measure of revenge.)

On the whole, I led what I would consider a charmed existence on the train.

Then I started commuting.

Even the commute started off inauspiciously enough. My first day, with New Jersey in a state of emergency, enough people stayed away that I managed to procure a seat alone on an express train, which is the commuting equivalent of digging in your flower bed and finding a cache of rubies, or so I'm led to believe. Toward the end of my first week, I ran into a girl who used to work for me as a host when I managed a restaurant in New Brunswick. We strolled up 7th Avenue and gossiped like teenagers. I barely noticed how gray it was outside.

A week into my commuting career, I was having a blast. Then came the fateful weekend when I bit the bullet and bought my first weekly pass, having exhausted all the one-off tickets I had in my wallet.

It was a freelance project meeting on a Saturday that compelled me to go to New York for the sixth straight day. I never did that before. And I won't lie, I was feeling confident. Maybe it was hubris even, and the gods of train riding had had enough of my amiable smiles and relentless unobtrusiveness toward the other passengers. I'm not sure.

All I know is that I had never been stuck in a two-person seat next to a crying baby before, and I'm still not entirely convinced I deserved it.

But I am entirely certain that I didn't deserve to have the mother jiggle the seat with her legs and ass in a vain attempt to calm her screaming brat. Clearly, children have no business on trains, especially when those trains are packed with Mets fans and politely inconspicuous gentlemen who just want to be left alone to listen to their iPods without feeling like they just stuck quarters in a motel room bed.

But I wasn't truly angry. I made a token display of my outrage with a series of sideways glances and scowls at the baby's parents. I never looked at the baby itself, not even out of the corner of my eye. I stopped well short of dealing with this in a remotely courageous or head-on manner. I wussed out.

Two days later it was back to the grind, and my Monday morning trip into New York furnished me with a companion who was actually skinnier than I am. I thought it was a stroke of good luck - plenty of room for both of us to knock into each other sideways like melting ice cubes in a glass every time the train lurched. Then my string bean companion fell asleep, and my immediate seating area was beset by an odor that had me checking my armpits for stray tendrils of B.O. Turns out it was the guy's breath.

The train ran significantly late that day, all thanks to a breakdown in the tunnel under the Hudson River which we had to use to get to Penn Station. So I had to contend with the fire-breathing dragon and his stank-ass pie hole for an additional 40 minutes. But here's where it gets weird : I turned this into a mental exercise. I can't control this man's breath, I thought, and I can't control the speed of the train. But I could control the itch on the back of my neck that had started when we left Newark Penn Station. So to test myself, I decided not to let myself scratch until we reached New York

My reasoning was that until I could accept the things I couldn't control and stop letting them stress me out, I didn't deserve to take care of the thing I could control. Add this to the list of reasons Matt Hooban belongs in an institution.

The ride from Newark to New York took 52 excruciating minutes. Ordinarily, it takes 14. I stepped out onto the platform under Penn Station and scratched like I had fleas.

I actually thought the self-immolation would have been enough to appease whatever karmic force I had run afoul of. I was wrong. On my way home that day, I got crammed against the wall by a generously proportioned gentleman who helped himself to the other half of my seat with the gusto that fat men usually reserve for barbecue ribs or birthday cake. I would have expected him to attack a ham sandwich just the same way.

What I didn't expect was for him to look at me, leaning precariously off the edge of the bench, and tell me with a straight face, "you could move over."

I looked him dead in his piggy eyes and said, "what, into the wall? I'm already leaking off the bench."

But even though my outrage had finally hit a boiling point, I still stopped short of making it personal. I felt like saying, "yeah, I could move over, or maybe you could skip a meal from time to time. You don't see me asking your fat ass to go on a diet so I can be more comfortable do you, John Candy?" or "oh I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were supposed to be sitting in first class on this flight, asshole. That's actually three cars up, just past the conductors booth. Tell you what, why don't you wait out on the platform and I'll have one of the valets come pick you and your luggage up - and don't worry if you see the train start moving without you. We wouldn't leave a valued customer behind."

Seriously, who did this jerk think he was?

But more importantly, who was I supposed to write so I could complain? It hardly falls within the vast purview of New Jersey Transit's authority to discriminate against ticketed passengers. But I got the raw end of the deal three straight rides. Isn't there some sort of grievance hotline for that? Dear Abby?

The story at least has a happy epilogue. My new corporate home inadvertently put me back in touch with an old acquaintance of mine - a girl I had known since my days in middle school and high school without ever sharing as much as a two-sentence conversation. Not only did we both land at the same company, but we also live in adjacent towns in central New Jersey. And unbeknownst to me, she was on the very same train as the fire-breather, and possibly also on the same train as the Louie Anderson look-alike.

Christine - that's her name - has been a delightful train buddy so far. We ride in at the ungodly hour of 7:19 in the morning and walk from Penn Station to our building, and it's a stroll through storytime the entire way. But if you see her, don't mention that. She's a senior copy editor with a 16th-floor office overlooking Park Avenue. The last thing this chick needs is a bigger ego. Instead, focus on the fact that she's short and bad at crossword puzzles.


Pete said...

Ahhh, that 1:41 Northeast Corridor was a thing of beauty. It was like the last flight out of Saigon.

It is interesting that the train experience is so different than the commercial airline one.

On planes, I have vociferously complained to the stewardess about fat people intruding into the pea-sized portion of space that I have been alloted for the duration of a flight - with the occasional success of being moved.

But on NJ Transit, you don't have a stewardess.

Frankly, I think it's better that way. There's something to be said for self-regulation, and I cannot bring myself to advocate more beauracracy.

In that case, you should have hauled off and hit that motherfucker in the mouth.

Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

Hi, Bob Dave!

It's an astute commentary you make, and an observation that truly bears out the sort of anonymous commenter insight that makes the Internet the hub of reasonable and Socratic discourse that it is. Sadder than my ailing sex life, however (and how did you know so much specific information about me, by the way? Weeeird!), is the fact that I have been sitting in front of a computer for the several months since I wrote this piece, just waiting to see how it would be received by the public.

I can't tell you how excited I am to hear from you!

Hugs right back at you, Dave Bob!


Hey... wait a second... isn't Dave Bob the name of the girl I paid US$30.00 to fondle just a month ago? ZOMG, I TOTALLY KNOW YOU!